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Lucinda Williams Tells Her Secrets

NASHVILLE — “Bless your heart!”

Lucinda Williams delivered the Southern benediction in her distinctive drawl. She has a memoir coming out soon, and Ms. Williams, the celebrated singer-songwriter who has been compared to Raymond Carver for the acuity of her work, was nonetheless not too sure about this particular literary endeavor. So when a visitor complimented the book, “Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You,” she beamed. Like many a writer, she said she had a hard time letting go. “I thought, ‘I’m going to write this book and turn it in when I’m done,’” she said. “Much to my dismay it doesn’t work that way.”

She wanted more time, and she missed the editorial eye and encouragement of her father, the poet and literary scholar Miller Williams, who died in 2015. Like his daughter, he was known for the gritty realism of his work, and they often performed together. For years he had looked over her lyrics — he was the king of grammar, she said — until she sent him “Essence,” the title song from her 2001 album, and he told her, as she recalled: “‘Honey, this is as close to pure poetry as you’ve come.’ And I said, ‘Does this mean I’ve graduated?’”

It has been 25 years since Ms. Williams’s breakthrough, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” That collection of anthems to love, loss and yearning made her an overnight success, as she said wryly, at age 45. Despite the stroke she suffered in 2020, she still looks vibrant and tough, with her smoky blue eyes and roughed up, rock ’n’ roll hair. Walking is a challenge (she takes it slow these days) and she can’t yet play guitar, but her voice is thrillingly unaffected.

About that voice. Emmylou Harris once said Ms. Williams could sing the chrome off a tailpipe. Bonnie Raitt, in a phone interview, called it “unique, truly American and drenched in raw grit and soul and vulnerability.”

Steve Earle, Ms. Williams’s occasional collaborator and old friend, described it this way over Zoom: “Have you ever been in New Orleans or Mobile or someplace really far South when the gardenias start to bloom? There’s a moment when the scent just permeates everything and there’s a viscosity to it and it’s substantial and that’s what her voice has always reminded me of. There’s an automatic atmosphere. Chet Baker was like that. Merle Haggard. The mood happens as soon as they open their mouths.”

Ms. Williams, 70, and her husband, Tom Overby, who is also her manager and collaborator, live in a white clapboard bungalow with a peaked roof, gingerbread trim and a neat square of lawn. They moved to East Nashville from Los Angeles in February 2020, after which came a series of blows: the tornadoes that tore through the city in early March, flattening neighborhoods and shearing off part of their roof; the coronavirus pandemic, which shut things down a week later; the Covid death of her dear friend John Prine; and the stroke, which bludgeoned her in November.

The house was sparsely furnished with a pair of velvety sofas; metal shelves and storage containers spilling over with books, CDs and vinyl albums; and lots of audio gear. On the kitchen island, a bright yellow vase was filled with yellow button flowers. The gray walls were bare, save for a white board that proclaimed, “Lu’s Schedule. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

“I have a bit of brain fog from the stroke,” Ms. Williams said, nodding at the board, “dates and days and such, but I think I always had that.”

Mr. Overby, a loquacious man with bushy gray hair, rolled his eyes in assent. He’s the memory in the marriage, she added.

In “Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You,” Ms. Williams writes of her decades playing for tips and spaghetti dinners and the perfidy of the record companies that didn’t know how to characterize her roots-inspired, renegade rocking style and her novelistic writing. “We don’t know what to do with this,” she said she was told over and over again. “It’s too country for rock and too rock for country.” It was somehow fitting that a British independent label, Rough Trade Records, signed her for her 1988 album, “Lucinda Williams.”

She writes of the Hollywood director hired to make a video for “Right in Time,” the languid ballad about a woman’s desire from the “Car Wheels” album. As she recounts, he arrived for dinner at a restaurant thoroughly drunk before propositioning her, sloppily, while her boyfriend was in the bathroom. When she found his idea for the video corny, she sent him packing. She goes on to tell the story of the six-year odyssey to get the album made — the setbacks caused by vacillating record company executives and her dogged commitment to her own high standards. For her troubles, Ms. Williams was labeled a perfectionist, which, for a woman in a male-dominated industry, was not a compliment.

“She just stood her ground and emerged a gleaming, burnished jewel,” Ms. Raitt said. “It doesn’t make you popular when you stand your ground, and that’s why she’s excellent.” A strong woman in the music industry is seen as “a control freak and a bitch,” she added, while a strong man is hailed as “an auteur and a genius.”

Ms. Williams turned to Mr. Earle to help her get the album finished. “He’d say, ‘It’s just a record, Lu,’” she said. “He was trying to help me get perspective. I was losing my perspective. He’d be like: ‘The vocal is great. You’re singing your Louisiana ass off. When are you going to trust somebody?’ I had hardly made any records before, compared to other artists, so the whole process of being in the studio was terrifying. It was my own neuroses. It’s not like I was brave or anything.”

She has often been bedeviled by jitters. In 1994, when she won a Grammy thanks to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s hit version of her song “Passionate Kisses,” she was too nervous to attend the ceremony. Rosanne Cash had sent her to a Nashville boutique for an outfit, but she bailed at the last minute.

“The truth is I was not just self-conscious, but also scared,” she writes in the memoir. “I feared that I didn’t belong. It’s a feeling I’ve been trying to shake my entire life. It’s a riddle I believe many artists have been trying to solve for centuries. It takes enormous fortitude to create the work in the first place, but then once it’s time to put it out in the world, the confidence required to go public is unrelated to the audacity that created the work.”

“It was my fear of the unknown,” Ms. Williams said. “Of being around people with money and nice clothes and nice teeth or whatever.”

She managed to make it to the Grammy ceremony in 1999, when “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” was honored as the year’s best folk album. But when her name was called, she found herself walking away from the stage. Mr. Earle, who was up for the same award, yelled out to her, as she told it: “‘Lulu! You’re going the wrong way!’ I was horrified. God. Thanks, Steve!”

“Lucinda is one of the great geniuses of popular music, so how could she have struggled?” Ann Powers, a music critic for NPR, said. “A lot of it is personal and a lot of it is structural. The dynamic of how to corral a bunch of guys was complicated, it still is, but even more so then when women were relatively sparse in rock ’n’ roll circles.”

It can be hard for bandleaders like Ms. Williams to be the only woman in the room. Ms. Raitt called it the problem of “women’s voices,” which “hits the mom button” for many men.

Ms. Powers added, “In her music, she’s often questioning herself, expressing her vulnerability in profound ways.”

“So it makes sense that she would have struggled to claim her authority,” she continued. “So often with artists the very thing we love about them is what poses a challenge for them in their life and work.”

In any case, in addition to earning a Grammy, “Car Wheels” hit the Billboard charts, a first for Ms. Williams, and went gold. Critics reviewed it in ecstatic terms, and the record producer Joe Boyd called it “the ‘Blonde on Blonde’ of the 1990s,” referring to Bob Dylan’s canonical record.

As Ms. Williams’s fame grew, so did the dedication of her fans. She writes of the woman who began masturbating at a show in New Orleans and kept at it even as she was removed by security. (When Ms. Williams and her band heard the story after their set, they were fascinated, as she recalled: “Was she wearing pants? How did it work?”) There was the couple that sent her lingerie. The woman who delivered a crate of Vidalia onions because she’d heard Ms. Williams liked them. One fan, a drug counselor who credited his sobriety to Ms. Williams, had one of her songs tattooed in its entirety on his back. Then there are those who have sent her letters saying how much they appreciate “Sweet Old World,” her mournful lament for someone who died by suicide.

Ms. Williams was born in Lake Charles, La., and grew up in New Orleans, Mexico and Chile, with stopovers in towns in Mississippi, Utah and Georgia. Her father, the son of a Methodist clergyman and early civil rights activist, sold encyclopedias and refrigerators before his mentor, Flannery O’Connor, recommended him for a poetry position at Loyola University in New Orleans. Hence the constant moving.

“I’m so sorry,” Mr. Williams said when he first heard “Car Wheels,” which paints a picture of tense domesticity and a peripatetic family life. Her mother, Lucille, a thwarted pianist, was also the child of a minister — of the fire and brimstone variety — and she suffered from mental illness and self-medicated with alcohol. Lucinda and her siblings were mostly raised by their father and stepmother, his former student and the family’s babysitter. (Awkward at first, as Ms. Williams notes in the book.)

Theirs was a Bohemian academic household, imprinted by the politics of the era. Mr. Williams was the host of a bibulous literary salon that included Charles Bukowski, the hard-living poet. As a teenager, Lucinda handed out “Boycott grapes” leaflets in front of a grocery store and played protest songs at demonstrations. When she refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in her New Orleans high school, her father said, “Don’t worry honey, we’ll get you an A.C.L.U. lawyer.” And when she was finally thrown out, after joining a civil rights march, he was unfazed.

“To hell with it,” he told her. “You weren’t learning anything there anyway.” She spent a semester at the University of Arkansas, where her father was then teaching, but she dropped out to play music for tips at a club in New Orleans.

Ms. Williams took the title for her memoir from the chorus of “Metal Firecracker,” a song from the “Car Wheels” album, one of her many compositions about “the poets on motorcycles” who are her preferred type.

These men fill the pages of her memoir. There was the gentle crew member who turned violent after he moved in with her and made away with her third Grammy — for best female rock vocal performance in 2002 — and a good bit of her collection of folk art. And the erudite charmer who was her first long-term boyfriend and who died of cirrhosis of the liver in his 40s. The haunting “Lake Charles” is an elegy for him.

The man in “Metal Firecracker” was a charismatic bass player who doggedly pursued her while they were touring for her 1992 album, “Sweet Old World.” (“Metal firecracker” was his nickname for the tour bus.) Against the advice of bandmates, Ms. Williams succumbed, which meant breaking up with her boyfriend at the time, who reacted by busting up the furniture in their hotel room. The new suitor had a few irons in the fire, as she learned later, and when the tour was over, he vanished. He told her, in a wince-inducing phone call, “I love you but this relationship doesn’t fit my agenda right now.” At any rate, as she writes, she got a song out of it. Three, as it happens.

Ms. Williams and Mr. Overby, a former music executive who is not a rogue but a bit of a poet, married onstage in Minneapolis in 2009. (When they were dating, she writes, his male colleagues warned him off: “Be careful. Our reps on her label tell us she’s literally insane.” He ignored them.) Her father wrote their vows and performed the ceremony. When they both declared, “Loving what I know of you, trusting what I do not yet know,” the audience roared with laughter.

There is some dispute about who proposed to whom. Ms. Williams claimed it was Mr. Overby. In her recollection, he turned to her during a tour and asked if she wanted to go shopping for diamonds.

Mr. Overby shook his head. “We were on the bus and out of nowhere you go, ‘So when are you taking me shopping for diamonds?’”

Ms. Williams: “I did?”

Mr. Overby: “You did!”

Ms. Williams: “But you liked it.”

Mr. Overby organized a trip to a jewelry store owned by friends in Omaha, lining it up with a performance, but Ms. Williams was so nervous she couldn’t get off the bus until just before the store closed. When she saw the array of rings, she panicked. Mission aborted. They tried again the following year, and again she was flummoxed. Years later, they bought a pair of rings in Los Angeles — and Ms. Williams promptly lost them, her husband said.

“Misplaced them,” she said, correcting him.

The couple may not be the best jewelry collaborators, but lately they have worked nicely in the studio on Ms. Williams’s new album, “Stories From a Rock ’n’ Roll Heart,” out in June. As they did in their homage to John Prine, which they wrote after he died of Covid. Ms. Williams performed it last year at a tribute to him. It tells the story of a night long ago when Ms. Williams and Mr. Prine thought they might write a song together. They spent many jolly hours careering from bar to studio but never quite got down to the task.

John and me were going to get together

And write a song one time

Got about as far as the midtown bar

And ordered up a bottle of wine

What could go wrong, working on a song?

Then we got to talking, not looking at the time

Telling stories about folks we know

Had another bottle of wine

We were having fun

What could go wrong?

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